At this time, research on anxiety is examining several factors that may be involved in the development of anxiety disorders. Areas of current research include brain function, cognitive factors, hormones, genetics, and infections. The ultimate goal of this research is to someday be able to cure, and possibly even prevent, all anxiety disorders.
Anxiety Research: An Overview
Anxiety disorders are common in the United States, with more than 19 million adult Americans ages 18 to 54 having one or more of these disorders.
Anxiety research is currently examining:
- Genetic and environmental risks for major anxiety disorders
- Their course, both alone and when they co-occur with other illnesses, such as heart disease, depression, or cancer (see Anxiety and Cancer)
- Treatment methods.
Scientists also seek to discover the basis of anxiety disorders in the brain and their effects on the functioning of the brain and other organs.
The ultimate goal is to be able to cure, and perhaps even to prevent, anxiety disorders.
How Research on Anxiety Is Progressing
As the search continues for better treatments, researchers are using the most sophisticated scientific tools available to determine the causes of anxiety disorders. Like heart disease and diabetes, these brain disorders are complex and probably result from the interplay of genetic, behavioral, developmental, and other factors. Scientists from a number of areas of expertise are trying to identify risk factors that make certain people prone to these conditions.
A number of areas of research include:
- Brain function
- Cognitive factors
- Early life stresses
- Imaging tools
Studies of the Brain
Studies in animals and humans have focused on pinpointing the specific brain areas and circuits involved in anxiety and fear, which underlie anxiety disorders. Fear, an emotion that evolved to deal with danger, causes an automatic, rapid protective response that occurs without the need for conscious thought. It has been found that the body's fear response is coordinated by a small structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala.
Neuroscientists have shown that when confronted with danger, the body's senses launch two sets of signals to different parts of the brain. One set of signals, which takes a more roundabout route, relays information to the cerebral cortex (the cognitive part of the brain that explains in detail the threatening object or situation -- such as a big black car heading for you as you cross the street). The other set of signals shoots straight to the amygdala, which sets the fear response in motion, readying the body for quick action before the cognitive part of the brain comprehends just what is wrong. The heart starts to pound and diverts blood from the digestive system to the muscles for quick action. Stress hormones and glucose flood the bloodstream to provide the energy to fight or flee. The immune system and the pain response are suppressed to prevent swelling and discomfort, which could interfere with a quick escape. And, as a preventive measure for similar confrontations in the future, the learned fear response is etched on the amygdala.
The amygdala findings may have important implications for treating people who suffer from anxiety disorders. If, as these anxiety research studies suggest, the memories stored in the amygdala are relatively permanent, one aim of research is to develop therapies for anxiety disorders that increase cognitive control over the amygdala so that the "act now, think later" response can be interrupted.